Some directors are drawn to obsessive heroes who sink everything into their dreams or goals; the heroes are usually onscreen surrogates for the directors. Steven Spielberg had Schindler’s List, Francis Coppola had Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Michael Cimino hungered for years to make a movie version of The Fountainhead. Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator fits snugly into this category. Scorsese, perhaps cinema’s greatest living obsessive-compulsive director now that Stanley Kubrick is dead, is a natural match for Howard Hughes, the billionaire crackpot and/or visionary (depending on your view). Hughes lived every filmmaker’s dream, pouring unprecedented thousands of his own cash into the flying epic Hell’s Angels, escorting ladies like Ava Gardner and Katharine Hepburn to premieres, and focusing relentlessly on his fantasy — to build the best airplanes ever — even when everyone else thinks he’s nuts.
Leonardo DiCaprio seems to have become for Scorsese what Tom Hanks has become for Spielberg — a go-to guy for dependable charisma (DiCaprio is signed on for Scorsese’s next film as well). As Howard Hughes, DiCaprio is allowed to hit far more notes than he did as the sullen lead in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. His Howard is a go-getter, a man who responds to a roadblock by throwing money at it. Yet all his riches can’t insulate him from his inner demons — his terror of germs, instilled in him (or so John Logan’s script has it) by his mother. Gradually over the course of the movie’s two hours and forty-nine minutes (which streak by until the somewhat talky finale), DiCaprio shows us the dark side of obsessiveness, the habitual hand-washing, the jars of urine lined up neatly.
This is a jittery epic, always on the move; its energy matches Howard’s, and when he meets Katharine Hepburn we can see why they click so well and why they don’t last together — Cate Blanchett nails Hepburn’s haughty nervous energy, which we see is a cover for her insecurity around her pompously intellectual Connecticut family. (You can also understand why she eventually gave her heart to the gruff, amiable pillow Spencer Tracy, who was able to calm her down.) The movie’s Howard loves to achieve, but dislikes the limelight; he’d much rather be up in the cockpit of one of his planes, breaking a speed record or cranking his own camera during the shooting of a dogfight scene in Hell’s Angels. Scorsese’s admiration for Hughes is palpable — here’s a guy who got up in a plane and shot his own footage for the picture he was producing.
The Aviator bogs down a bit when it gets into the conflict between Hughes’ TWA and the rival Pan Am, run by a pipe-puffing Alec Baldwin with devious senator Alan Alda in his pocket. Howard is crucified in the press for spending wartime money on planes that wouldn’t fly, leading to a rather dry hearing in which Howard practically produces a pie chart and pointer to defend himself. The movie’s populist theme is that the corrupt rich guys are trying to stomp the little guy — some little guy! Hughes was a millionaire at age eighteen, inheriting his father’s oil drill company that afforded him $2 million a year. We don’t really care whether Howard’s name is smeared in the papers; we care more about whether he can beat down his germophobia long enough to make himself presentable. In short, his inner conflict is a lot more compelling than two guys being mean to him.
This is Scorsese’s most engaged and engaging filmmaking in a while; it feels like an epic without strain. As soon as the first nightclub scene hits the screen, you know Scorsese is in an enchanted milieu — big-band music, movie stars milling about (Jude Law contributes a fun few minutes as Errol Flynn, who of course gets into a fight). The Aviator is a tribute to Hollywood and an outsider who wanted to be part of it, but whose vision was grander than Hollywood. It ends on a note of triumph, ignoring Hughes’ final hermetic decades (Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard, in which Hughes turns up in the desert and leaves millions of dollars to a gas-station owner, would be a good follow-up to The Aviator). But Scorsese has made the movie he wanted, about the hero whose story he wanted to tell.